Fearful Asymmetry

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-05-30 17:00:00 No comments

If I could sum up the problem of modern politics in only a few words, it would be this: the asymmetry of the motivations of the participants, and the resulting devastation of the possibilities of a civil society.

On one side, you have people who actually care about stuff like the rule of law and the proper functioning of society. On the other, you have people who don't, but are more than happy to weaponize the asymmetry between the two sides. One side most decidedly does not want to play fair, but will be happy to exploit any appeals to fairness granted them. Some men do indeed just want to watch the world burn. And when they know they are in good company, they all start lighting matches together.

In the early stages of this crisis, it seemed like we could just name-and-shame the weaponizers, but then a funny thing happened. They leaned into their shamelessness, and thus took over the very ways the meanings of things like shaming, and shame, were dictated. They played to an audience that loved the idea they could control the discussion by sheer force of will, not because their arguments had merit (which they didn't).

The end result is that shaming the shameless doesn't work anymore. It just makes the ones doing the shaming look like hapless schmucks. It's the worst of grade-school playground morality, blown up to the size of the whole society.

Our great failure is that we've never developed a good social mechanism for dealing with people who game the system of social norms, especially when those people have achieved the commanding heights of power. We never wanted to believe we could be in such danger, and so we never built a guard against it. More the fools we.

We don't want to be seen as hypocrites for "holding others to a different standard"; we don't want to play dirty lest we end up smelling like pigs ourselves. But maybe that's not the attitude to take in an existential crisis, when the very idea of open society is being trashed out from under us.

One of the other long-term consequences of such asymmetrical degradation is how it becomes impossible for society to function casually. The notion of ordinary decency -- don't kill people because they're the wrong color, for instance -- becomes extraordinary, so much so that it requires increasingly desperate acts on one's part to make them happen at all.

And beyond this, there's something else lying in wait: the false hope of redemption by way of individual or mass heroism. I am not saying that acts of heroism are by themselves unheroic, or unworthy, only that we are mistaken to pin our hopes on such things.

The myth of moral rebalancing through heroic sacrifice runs deep -- deep enough that manifests in ways that seem more complex than they really are. In the anime and manga Fullmetal Alchemist, the character Roy Mustang turns against the very power structure that nurtured him, so that he might help bring it down. When all is settled, he does something extraordinary: he turns himself in. He knows that he broke a norm, and that the only way to restore those norms is to place himself at the mercy of them once again. He is forgiven anyway.

I liked that the story went there. It showed a degree of thought about consequences that many stories in this vein don't come near. But it's a hopelessly optimistic view of how morality and political power work. The world does not have enough Roy Mustangs in it to redeem the rest of us, and where they have existed, they have never had the luxury of offering themselves to the restored order for the sake of affirming the rule of law to those who need to know it exists. Because one of the consequences of asymmetric society is that it can only be rebalanced by terrible heroic sacrifice, and a society that can only be saved by heroes is not going to be saved.

That line comes from a book review I read some time ago. The full context deserves quoting:

A society that can only be saved by heroes is not going to be saved: there will always be far more selfish and corrupt people, and good but ineffectual ones, than martyrs. Someone such as Sophie Scholl, the twenty-one-year-old who distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets in Munich knowing it would lead to her death, deserves everlasting praise for redeeming the honor of humanity; but she knew full well that she was not going to stop Hitler. It took the Allied armies and many millions of deaths to do that.

And even in a world where a Roy Mustang could exist, it would take far more than one Roy Mustang, or even a hundred, to counterbalance the asymmetrical society. He would not simply be struggling against any one incarnation of evil, but a whole habit of evil, a mindset. Such things embody themselves in figureheads and cult leader types, but they by no means live exclusively there, and are not removed wholly from our world by the disempowerment of their embodiments. "Ideas are bulletproof", said V from V For Vendetta, but he was not talking only about the good ones.

Elsewhere in the same article: "The terrain on which a country can fight for its destiny is not morality but politics." That is, you cannot stop the degradation of a society by simply setting a defiant example on your own. You have to hold your nose and engage directly with its power structures. You have to be willing to do things like run for office and lobby and vote, and not hold those measures in contempt as half-measures, especially not when the other side is only too happy to scoop them up and exploit them until they no longer exist anyway. You have to know the same respect for power as your opponent. Out of that comes the changes in mindset and society needed to balance the playing field once again. The question of whether this is still possible, or can happen on a timescale of any meaning, remains unanswered.

And yet, here I am writing books about the need for heroic examples, about the need to manifest some kind of resistance against asymmetry. And even giving people a happy ending for it! Because at the end of the day, I know a myth is needed. Maybe not even to be believed in, but just to allow some sense that other things are possible, that all this can someday be made sense of, and that in itself is a hope worth having when all others die.

Tags: culture politics society these troubled times